Friday, July 10, 2009

A Family Cemetery—and a Family's Story

In 1724, Col. Thomas DeKay of New York City purchased 1,200 acres of frontier land along Wawayanda Creek, in what are now the towns of Vernon and Warwick. Settling on his property in 1731 (the first European settler in the town of Vernon), he camped out the first night on a sandy knoll overlooking the creek, in what is now a remote area of the Price's Switch neighborhood of northern Vernon. He slept so well (says family lore) that he declared he would be buried on the spot.

And so he was, in 1758. Over the next one hundred and seventy-five years, scores of his descendants were born and raised in Vernon Township, and some of them were buried alongside him. Today, some five hundred Americans carry the last name DeKay, and all of them are descended from our Colonel Thomas. But in Vernon, at least, the DeKay name had pretty well died out by the late 1930s, with his descendants moving elsewhere. The old DeKay family burying ground became weedy and overgrown.

Neglected, perhaps, but never forgotten. In 2006, one of Col. Thomas DeKay's great-great-great-great grandsons, Earl DeKay of Naples, Florida, came back to Vernon to check up on things. Even after 270-odd years, it seems, the DeKays have Vernon in their blood.

Earl, a retired Union Carbide engineer born in Bloomfield, was tracking down some bits of family history and genealogy. He was particularly concerned about the state of the family's ancestral burying ground. His brother Dick DeKay had visited the site in 2005 and was distressed by its sorry state. Earl's subsequent efforts on behalf of the cemetery have resulted in its recent restoration, removing decades of vegetation and repairing much deterioration. For a full account of that effort, check out Jessi Paladini's column elsewhere in this week's AIM Sussex County.

It's easy to look at such a small country cemetery and regard it simply as the last resting place of one particular family. But it's more than that. If you read the stones, they collectively tell the story of that family.

It is a sometimes-cryptic story, complicated by the fact that in such cemeteries, headstones and other monuments rarely mark all the graves. It seems clear that many—perhaps half or more—would have received only an inscribed wooden cross or other marker, which in time deteriorated. So we only have part of the story. But it still tells a lot.

Col. Thomas DeKay set aside the parcel as a burying ground, but he wasn't the first to be buried there. Sadly for him, it was his son George, who died in November 1757. This was during the French and Indian War, and George had attained the rank of Major. He died either fighting Native Americans, or from "fatigue and exposure," depending on which family genealogy you consult. Whatever the cause, it was a tragedy, as George DeKay left behind a twenty-two year old wife, a two-year old daughter, and a two-month old son.

He was not the only occupant of the cemetery for long: his father, Colonel Thomas, died little more than a month later, on New Year's Day 1758. Surviving gravestones testify to no further burials here for another twenty-six years, until 1784, when the Colonel's seventy-seven year old widow, Christiana, was put to rest next to her husband. Son, father, and mother were the only marked burials here for the next forty years. Their tombstones are elegantly carved from the kind of reddish-brown sandstone found in the Newark basin. Rather dour looking cherubs gaze down from them, a common decorative element of the time.

The apparent disuse of the cemetery from the late 1780s through the 1820s probably reflects the fact that the DeKay family multiplied and spread out, and the Colonel's original farmstead—and burying ground—simply saw less activity. One of the Colonel's sons, Capt. Thomas DeKay (1731-1810), settled and was buried just over the line in New Milford, New York.

But Captain Thomas's son, Thomas DeKay Jr., commonly known as "Squire" or "Bucky" DeKay (1759-1830), settled on his grandfather's original farmstead, and became one of the best known of the Vernon DeKays. With Bucky DeKay setting down new roots on his grandfather's original farm, the old family burying ground again came into use. Among the first of the next generation to be buried here was William DeKay, one of Bucky's sons, who died in 1825, aged forty. Another of Bucky's children was Mary DeKay, who married Charles Welling of Warwick. Their son, Thomas Welling, was buried here in 1829, aged twenty-two. In 1830, old "Squire" Bucky DeKay died at age seventy-one and was buried here, followed the same year by his son-in-law Charles Welling, aged forty-five.

By this time, another of Bucky's sons, Thomas B. DeKay (commonly known by his militia title, Major) was likewise settling near the old homestead, known in old deeds as the Wawayanda Homestead Farm. In 1827, Major Thomas B. (born 1792, same year as Vernon Township) built a big new house not far from his grandfather's frontier home (which subsequently fell to ruin). This house still stands on DeKay Road (it has big white columns now). The Major's young wife, Clarissa Sharp (of Sharpsborough, later Hamburg) was the next to be buried here, dying in 1828 at age thirty. Major Thomas B. and his second wife, Sarah (some eighteen years his junior) saw more than their share of heartbreak, as recorded in the tombstones here.

In April 1835, Major Thomas and Sarah buried their little daughter Sarah A. here, aged just over two years old. Less than a month later, their little one-year-old daughter Emma C., likewise died and was buried here. And in December, Major Thomas's sister, Catherine, who had married Henry W. McCamley, had an infant daughter, who died aged three days and six hours, and was likewise buried along with her little cousins. The little cemetery never saw so many burials in one year again.

In 1842, Alanson Welling, another one of Bucky's grandsons via daughter Mary, died at thirty-six and was buried here. A year later came Ross Welling, aged sixteen (possibly a son or cousin of Alanson). And in 1846, Major Thomas and Sarah buried yet another child, William T., aged eight. And in 1847, their granddaughter Georgianna, aged 8, daughter of their son Thomas S. and his wife Elizabeth, died and was buried here.

In 1848, old Bucky's widow, Hannah, died at age eighty-five, the oldest person buried here. In 1850, Elizabeth DeKay, wife of Thomas S. and daughter-in-law of Major Thomas and Sarah, died (evidently in childbirth) at age thirty-two. The girl she gave birth to was named Elizabeth, but the baby sadly did not outlive her mother by long, joining her and her sister Georgianna here in the cemetery just over a year later.

At the same time Major Thomas and his wife Sarah were seeing grandchildren buried, they were still raising (and burying) children of their own. Their son Willie C., aged six, died and was buried here in 1853, and in 1861 their daughter Julia, aged eight, died and was buried here. All together, Major Thomas B. DeKay and his wife Sarah saw five of their children die.

In 1863, Major Thomas B. DeKay himself joined his children in death and was buried here. In 1866, his daughter Christina, aged twenty-three, joined him. The tombstones from the mid-1800s all reflect the materials and styles of those years: all marble, some slabs, some obelisks, some decorated with weeping willows, some with urns.

By the 1870s, old family burying grounds like this were being replaced in popularity by "Incorporated" cemeteries like Warwick Cemetery and Glenwood Cemetery, which had perpetual maintenance, as well as elegantly landscaped grounds. From then on, the DeKays of this branch were buried mostly in Warwick Cemetery.

But one last person, Sarah DeKay, widow of Major Thomas, chose to be buried here in 1890. Her husband's first wife had been buried here sixty years before, her husband twenty-seven years before, and she no doubt wanted to be buried here instead of the fancy newer cemeteries to be with her husband and her five little ones who had gone on before.

As far as we know, Sarah DeKay was the last person buried here. The cemetery was used for 133 years. It's worth noting a grim statistic: of the twenty-six people buried there for whom there are inscriptions, roughly forty percent were children or adolescents. That was no fluke: childhood mortality was high in the 18th and 19th centuries, even among well-to-do families like the DeKays.

Though it fell into disuse, the historical significance of the DeKay Cemetery as one of the region's oldest burial grounds was noted early on. In 1925, Rev. Warren P. Coon recorded its inscriptions, and a lucky thing, too. Pollution and acid rain has badly weathered some of marble inscriptions from the 1800s (ironically, the tombstones from the 1700s, carved on sandstone, were not affected by this, and are far more legible than the newer inscriptions on marble).

You might imagine Reverend Coon to be a country parson with an interest in genealogy, but he was quite a bit more. Minister of several large Methodist congregations in the Newark area in the early 1900s, he was also a decorated World War I Army Chaplain who served in the trenches at Verdun. Aside from being a prolific recorder of old cemeteries, he was a serious genealogist, and a popular speaker who gave numerous lectures. As if that wasn't enough, he served two terms in the New Jersey State Assembly.

A visit to the DeKay Cemetery today is like stepping back in time—the area looks much as it did in the 1ate 1800s, remaining profoundly rural. Reading these inscriptions on sandstone and marble, it is easy to be saddened by the record of young lives cut short.

But it is wrong to suppose these people were morbid or death-obsessed. Rather, they were profoundly aware that our time on earth is brief and fragile. These monuments were expressions of love, and remembrances of this hard fact. These people—as many today—viewed death as not an end, but as a mystic doorway to something beyond. Visiting a cemetery was supposed to remind you of just this. Or as stated by one 1860s Vernon epitaph:

Behold & see as you pass by--
As you and yours, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.